Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Voices

I ran a half-marathon recently.

It was hard.

The air was extremely humid and knee pain shadowed every step. I didn’t run as fast as I had been training. I had to walk a few times. But I was able to smile and wave (albeit weakly) at my family and friends who came to cheer me on. I finished and it felt so good to sit down, pour some water down my back, and rest my head on my knees.

I knew I wasn’t at my best, but overall I was proud and happy. 13.1 miles is a long way.

A couple days after the race, I received an email link to the pictures of me the race photographer had taken around at various points around the course.

These pictures were a visual confirmation that I was not at my best.

I recoiled when I saw them.

And a familiar voice started rattling in my mind:

"Wow. I look like shit in pretty much all of these. Why didn't I even try to smile when I saw the camera guy? What's with that look on my face? Too bad my shirt was riding up the entire time. I look so pale and just done. And look at this one. I am only at mile 7. I really looked about as garbage-y as I felt. Wow. Ugh."

This self-deprecating rant is one I'm familiar with.

It’s usually one-sided dialogue. I usually just sit there listening to that berating voice, that mood-crushing voice. And I shrink.

But I've learned to make this a two-way conversation, that I actually have the option to come back at that voice with kindness:

"Look at you, how hard you were pushing, how tough that really was, how you didn't quit even though you wanted to. Look at how strong your arms look, that's definitely new. And then please look at this second picture, and don't say a word about your goofy smile. Sure, it's not one of the "official" race pictures, but let's talk about a different lens. How do you think the kids saw you? Not ugly, not skinny, not terrible, not struggling. They saw: strong, amazing, proud. And you know that's so much more important than analyzing these race pictures for every flaw you can find."

I've never been friends with pictures of myself, but I'm starting to find ways to be okay with them.



Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Essential

I feel like I've gotten things pared down pretty well lately, fitting into my day all the essential extras that have become important to me. I've got my morning pages (sometimes), walking the dogs (all the time), working out every day, extra writing time when I can squeeze it in between the lines of everything else, a few stolen minutes of meditation, and some pages of reading at the end of the day.

These things are largely done before the day starts or after it ends: these essential-non-essentials book end my days. Sometimes one thing or another is woven into the regular flow of the regular day, but I get a pulling sensation whenever I do this. Hand my four-year-old the iPad so I can meditate, ask the 11 year-old to babysit so I can run. I trade things, negotiate, sometimes steal time to make space for these things I need-don't-need to do. Because these non-essentials are really as essential as eating, sleeping, working: they keep me engaged, keep me from imploding. They are the bracing joints that keep my lungs inflated.

But I don't like for there to be tightness around these things. I don't like when I'm making dinner and it's taking longer than I thought because --

step 1 cook the chicken,
step 2 make the sauce,
step 3 remake the sauce because it burned in step 2,
step 4 the seasoning,
step 5 the other sauce,
step 6 roll the enchiladas,
step 7 do so many dishes,
step 8 figure out what else to feed the kids because the enchiladas are definitely too spicy too cheesy to red-saucy --
               
-- and I thought this wasn't going to take this long and the window I had for running is closing and I'm about to slam it on someone's fingers, the next person who asks for a glass of juice while I'm cooking dinner in my bare feet wanting my socks and shoes to be laced and already carrying me out the door.

That's the tightness.

It doesn't let up until I'm two miles into my run and I realize I started out too fast and I'm pushing against the ground instead of floating over it and the heat is high in my face and the blood pounds in my ears and

I notice this and --

pull in a deeper breath and --

work against this tightness like a knot: drop my shoulders, open my fists, shake my head a bit.

I look around. It's a beautiful evening.

When it's time to walk I let it be slowly. I watch my breath come down. My heart rate slows enough to wait for me. I walk back into myself. I had been hanging onto the backs of my shoes, carried along almost against my will, a shadow glued there.

When I come back in the house I'm dripping in sweat and something else too, something that's melting. It feels good running down my spine, down the backs of my arms, dripping and pooling on the floor.

I could even smile.

I could even wash the rest of the dishes without breaking any at all.

Not even in my mind.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

memory lane

Snow cakes the treads on my shoes. I have no traction. I hope I don’t slip.

With Claire secured to my chest in the carrier and my coat zipped around her, my body temperature rises as I walk. I take off my hat. The cold air feels good against my neck.

The playgroup starts in ten minutes. I underestimated how long it would take me to walk two miles on these snowy roads. Claire shifts in the carrier, pressing her hands against my chest and leaning back. 

She looks up at me, blinking against the snow flurries that want to settle on her eyelashes.

“I know you want to get out,” I tell her. “But we’ll get there much faster if you just let me carry you, okay?” Claire is 14 months old. Walking is her thing.

She starts to whine. We still have a long way to go. Sweat trickles down my spine and I wish we would have stayed home. But I know getting out will be good for me. For both of us. It’s been a long year.

Friday, May 13, 2016

still practicing

The dogs are staring at me. They are willing me to take them for a walk. But I’m going to finish writing these morning pages first. It’s something I need to do. All three pages today.

Sawyer’s eyes are locked on my face like he’s influencing my thoughts with a Jedi mind trick. Harley thinks a simple Force choke will make me drop my pen.

Sorry, guys. I’m not done yet.

But they’re not settling into their waiting. Harley paws at me. Sawyer yawns at me. They pace.

The dogs are like my mind, moving around, anxious about something.

I’m working on noticing when I get distracted. I’m working on reeling my mind back into my body. My breath turns the wheel, 
   reminding, 
       grounding, 
            pulling me back in until I am close enough to focus on the scrap of light living in the center of my chest. The moment I recognize that light, it begins to expand to fill my body. It spills out into the space around me. It radiates in all directions.

I’m trying to see that light as infinite, limitless, but my mind presses up against boundaries. Solid walls it doesn’t know how to climb or dissolve. I keep practicing, though. Pushing.

I believe that at some point I’ll be able to experience the vastness of my own mind, how big I really am, how little I have to fear.

Because –

Why?

I don’t have the right words. My time is up. Three pages almost full. I’ve hit the outskirts of my imagination and my mind cascades back into itself. The spell has broken.

But I’m not done practicing.

When I walk, I see the full arc of the sky. The sun is still low, still climbing out of bed, and the light angles through the trees and warms the color of Sawyer’s fur. The dogs sniff and zig zag across the path in front of me. My lungs are full and I am right here.


Monday, May 2, 2016

seeing, looking, noticing

The wind comes from every direction. Any direction. Strands of myself are blowing out, billowing, wrapping across my eyes, getting stuck in my partially open lips.

My mouth is dry.  I am at the center of a tornado. It is loud. Chaotic. Dark. But I'm not fighting. I'm not trying to get away.

I am still, in here.
I am still in here
I am still.
I am here.

I can see
even though my eyes are stuffed with sand
because
I'm not looking with my eyes.

When I look with my eyes I see:

laundry
  dog hair
    a very patchy lawn
      lunchboxes
        coffee cups
           my computer

When I look with my Self, I see:

the grain of wood on the floorboards.
the wrinkles in my pillow,
       crumpled crisscrossing lines
           that I wake up with on my face.
the faint lines on the bottom of Rose's foot when I check for slivers.
   life lines
      lines that will stay with her for life.

This is the kind of looking that makes me feel alive, unclenches my jaw.
__

A child is crying. My blood pressure is rising. A backpack needs to be zipped, hair needs to be braided, the bus stop needs to be arrived at. But my eye falls on the bookshelf with its evenly spaced boards and the books leaning at every angle. Order and the disorder existing together. I take a breath a remember that I am here. Now.

Seeing, looking, noticing like this is a lot like dropping my fists when I'm running, opening my palms, stretching my fingers, shaking my hands out like I'm letting something go, so when I fall back into my stride there is a looseness where tension used to be, clarity where the fog had been settling low, and a few full, long breaths that go all the way to the base of my lungs before settling back into a rhythm that's comfortable again, a rhythm I don't have to think about for awhile.  


Friday, April 22, 2016

the space between

It's December. John and I take the kids to see the new Star Wars movie, and it's the first time I've been to the theater in quite awhile. Movies in the theater are a luxury on many levels.

The theater has been updated since the last time I set foot in it, so I am surprised by the wide lounge chairs. Individual recliners for each person: the extravagance!

Rose, our youngest at age 4, wants to sit next to me. Her three sisters file in ahead of us, and John sits on the far end. Before the lights go down, everyone gets a lap full of popcorn. As we pass the bucket down the row, I catch John's eye and we both smile. I know he's seeing the three full body lengths between us, what with the new, wide luxury seats and all four kids. Even if we both stretched toward one another, we wouldn't be able to touch.

I think about one of our first dates, how he picked me up in his mom's Crown Vic and wore that blue sweater with the stripe across the chest and gripped the steering wheel with both hands. I liked the thickness of his wrists. The front seat felt wide and there was a lot of space between us. I was nervous. Movies are easy, though; you don't have to think of anything to say, and you can creep closer together in an accidental way. You can find each other's hands in the dark without really meaning to, without having to acknowledge anything except the feel of skin on skin, a slow thumb circling my palm.

Now, though, there's a football field between us, and his grin tells me he sees the absurdity here, and the awesomeness, too.

The lights go down and Rose is very quickly in my lap, the big girl seat suddenly too big for her in the dark. The scene is instant action -- and loud. Storm Troopers are on the ground; there's a fire blazing and Kylo Ren shows up, and I see his mask and hear his amplified voice through the filter of Rose's tense body. She's squirming and asking to leave.

We talked about John taking the older girls and me staying home with Rose, but Rose loves Star Wars: she thinks Darth Vader is great. We decided she wouldn't tolerate being left behind.

"This part will be over soon," I whisper into her ear. Her eyes are closed and I'm sure I'll have to walk out of the theater before the story even really begins. But the next scene is lighter; it's daytime and we meet Rey. Rose relaxes into my lap.

The popcorn bucket comes our way again, but it's empty except for a layer of crumbs. Rose eats every schnibble and wipes her hands on my jeans. She drinks a lot of water.

We are in the climax of the movie when she has to go to the bathroom. I take her, and she talks loudly in the bathroom stall about BB8 and -- that girl. "Rey?" I offer. Our voices echo in the empty bathroom.

During the drive home, John fills me in on the part I missed -- it was a key scene, of course, which would have been nice to see -- and the girls make sure to add their reactions and experiences, too.

"Well, we'll have to buy the movie when it comes out so I can see it," I say, and a cheer erupts throughout the car. It sounds like we have more than four kids.

No one is hungry for dinner when we get home. Popcorn at 5pm will do that.

But I am full and happy with good stories. The made up ones, of course, because they can carry us away and bring us together.

But mostly I'm grateful for the tale that fills the space between then and now. 

It keeps unfolding ahead of us.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

In defense of the sweaty selfie

When I first joined my online fitness accountability group, I posted an after-workout picture (aka sweaty selfie!) a few times, but it made me feel extremely uncomfortable.

Listen, I don't really like pictures of myself even when I'm careful about the way I stand, the grade of my smile, or the color of my shirt. After I work out, my hair is a mess. It's usually 5 a.m., so my eyes are still hung with sleep. And yah, there's sweat. Why would I want to share my image in such an unguarded, undone moment? What could possibly be the point? I decided early on this part was not really for me.

Yet I appreciated seeing the steady stream of sweaty selfies from the group in my Facebook feed. Knowing that others were getting their workouts done encouraged me keep up with my goals, and seeing their smiling, glowing faces connected me to the group in a way that words on their own wouldn't have done. I started to feel like I knew these ladies who were sharing their struggles and goals, being brave in their skin and strong in their resolutions.

But still, I couldn't participate fully. If I took my own picture, I'd see one eye bigger than the other. Hair that's always awful. Look at those dark circles! And, sure, my biceps are bigger, but aren't they kind of freakish? Veins and elbow bones and ugh. Delete.

This boils down to fear. Old fear. That admittedly teenage fear of being judged, of not being accepted.

But as I continued to follow along with the group and post my text-only check ins, I started to wonder who I was really helping by holding myself back. Was I really sparing anyone something awful by not posting my picture? This couldn't possibly a big deal. Why did the idea of sharing myself with a safe, supportive group of women make me feel so uncomfortable? What would happen if I tried? Not just once or twice, but every day?

Try.

This was my guiding word for 2016. A resolution of sorts. It means:

--try new things
--try again
--try harder
--try, instead of thinking so hard
--try, even when you'd rather not

I decided to give it a go.

It's a simple practice, one that might seem silly to some, but it is a practice.

It's like this:

When you are training for something -- a race, maybe, or a performance of some kind -- you repeat the same action over and over to keep improving, to take yourself to the next level. One set of push ups isn't going to be the thing that breaks the 4-hour marathon for you, but it's a step toward a stronger body.

This picture, right here, cannot erase my self doubt, but sharing it today is a step toward putting myself out there. Letting go of my own insecurities. Being brave enough to claim every inch of myself, inside and out.

This is me. This is how I look today. Right now. I woke up at 4:30 and pushed myself hard in my workout and snapped this picture. I'm raw and real. And in sharing myself with you, I'm taking a step toward total self acceptance. I'll practice this over and over until I really, truly feel it.




Thursday, March 17, 2016

on mud and growing things

The yard has melted.

The dogs bring in mud.

It gets under their nails and wedges between the pads of their feet. I wipe their paws every time they come in. There is a pile of muddy rags by the door: old cloth diapers, receiving blankets, t-shirts.

The mud comes off in streaks and in clumps. It dries on the entryway rug and sticks to everyone's socks. It clings to the dogs' paws despite the wiping.

Mud spreads all about the house
and I know it is spring.

I know it is spring and I walk through the house in bare feet. The floor boards shift and creak under my skin: a sensation that was muted by socks and slippers all winter. It feels good to let my toes air out. Cooped up all winter has left them red and irritated. The air is an invisible balm. Dirt sticks to the arches of my feet but I do not mind. Terribly.

I sweep and sweep the kitchen, the living room, the hallway, collecting great piles of dirt and dog hair multiple times a day. My youngest daughter interrupts this task and says, "I'll do it for you, Mama." I let her. She hums The Imperial March to herself and I take on a different chore. Dishes. I watch out the window while I rinse and stack. The dogs are playing chase out there. Suds, rinse, stack, now they're barking at a neighbor. Suds, rinse, stack, the puppy is digging a hole in my would-be garden. I shout out the window at him -- Hey!

and he looks up at me -- What?

before going back to work.

Last year that part of the yard was an eyesore. Overgrown with anything and everything that cast down roots. One day I took action and my husband's grub ax and hacked it all away, exposing roots and black earth. I piled the weeds in the wheel barrow and raked the space clean. This took a long time. John could have done it in half the time but it was my project, my idea, my garden. He let me be.

I filled the empty space with a random assortment of transplanted greenery from friends willing to divide plants from their established gardens. I didn't really care what I was putting in; I just wanted to fill the space. I put up a cheap wire fence and then let it go.

I let it go.

Weeks passed. I watered the new plants a few times and inspected their progress, but I didn't do much else. Then we went on vacation and more weeks passed. By the end of the summer, it was an overgrown mess: weeds in all the empty spaces so it wasn't clear what I had planted intentionally and what had just sprung up.

I was disappointed in myself for not keeping up with it, not weeding, not properly identifying the intentional plants in the first place, not planning anything at all. I'm not sure what I really expected to happen. That mere intention could manifest something real from the folds of my imagination? I wanted a picture-book butterfly garden but put in only enough effort to yield the look of an abandoned lot. Not what I had in mind.

But winter came and put everything to bed. It's a blank slate now.

A blank slate pocked with holes that I can't stop the new puppy from digging.

I'm glad he's digging there, though. If it was in the middle of the lawn he would be causing a real problem. But he's just digging in the garden. The "garden." A space I'd like to prettify but can't commit to caring for.

Maybe the puppy will bury something good in one of his holes. Maybe something completely fantastic will come up.

Like a unicorn.

Or a novel I wrote.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

muscle memory

"What is your pace?" The guy at the running shoe store asked. I was to get on a treadmill and run so he could film my feet, analyze my gait, and suggest the best shoe for my running style. He wanted to know at what speed he should set the treadmill. I gave him a number. He pressed one button and then another.

"You can start whenever you're ready."

It had been awhile since I touched a treadmill. Treadmill running is different than solid-ground running, I remembered immediately. I felt unsteady. I didn't think it was likely that my feet were doing what they usually do. My earrings were bouncing. My jeans felt tight around my knees. I wasn't planning to do this.

After a minute I got off the treadmill. It was not a graceful exit but I managed not to embarrass myself. I went over to the computer screen with the sales guy and he played the clip. I saw my calves and my ankles, the backs of my heels, my sock just above the rim of the demo shoe I was wearing.

He slowed the speed of the video to point out that I strike with my mid foot. I don't display notable pronation. My gait is typical. He left the screen on, my feet frozen in mid air, and he stepped into the back room to retrieve a few pairs of shoes for me to try.

It was odd to see my feet from behind like that. To watch myself moving from an angle we see other people all the time but never ourselves. It was like looking at a stranger except I recognized the way my knees turned in. The foot-plant was familiar. I watched my ankles absorb impact and rebound in response, and it was like seeing a muscle memory. A physical perspective on something that's only ever been internal.

***

It's 60 degrees on a Saturday in February. The sidewalks are choked with people and puddles. I'm driving in my car and see a girl jogging. She's wearing short sleeves and headphones and her ponytail swings in rhythm with her step.

I see her and something pulls in me. It's an old feeling and I'd almost forgotten about it.

I can't wait to go running.

In high school, running was my "thing." It identified me. Distance runner. Cross country runner. Miler. Two-miler. I had a letter jacket covered in metals that clanked when I walked. I was mighty proud to wear it.

I liked being part of the team. I liked performing well. And I did like running itself but my favorite part was stopping. Not just because I was done (though that was a part of it, too), but more because of the intense feeling of total body relief:

     Like swimming against the current
         and suddenly deciding to float belly up
              and let it take you.
       Like feeling the adrenaline rush
            of a house-shaking crack of thunder,
                    then settling back into your pillow
                         with the vibrations still
                                  breaking through the air.

I loved that.

But then there were all the years of pregnancies and young children and sleep deprivation, and I lost running. In order to hang onto it, I would have had to choose it over anything else that filled me. It was too fast. Too desperate. Too hard. It hurt too much. Any time I tried to take it back, claim it again as mine, the excuses would derail me. It was chaos in my body, and it was not the right thing to balance the chaos in my head. I couldn't love it.

But with my youngest daughter about to turn four, it's true that the demands on me have shifted. I sleep all night (usually). My oldest kid can babysit for run-length periods of time. My lap is often empty. No one needs me in an all-consuming way anymore.  There's more space in my head and all around me.

And I've been doing strength workouts for a number of months now, and I'm definitely stronger. Way stronger. And I think that's the extra edge I needed to start running again.

***

Coming up the hill at the end of my run today, my lungs were burning. I pushed off my toes and felt the muscles deep in my low belly firing. It was hard. Part of me wanted to stop. And I could have -- I don' t have to do this. I'm not even training for a race. But I am strong enough now that my muscles remember how to square shoulders over hips, support my chest up high, and run straight through the excuses.

And when I did stop at the top of the hill, I had that old ache in the back of my throat from pushing hard and my rib cage hurt from expanding wide enough to give my lungs the space they needed and I could see my heartbeat in my eyes and I smiled at the sky because -- this. I missed this. I missed this and then forgot that I missed it until liking it at all was buried under an entire decade.

I'm starting to remember, and like is blooming around the edges of running for me again.


Sunday, March 6, 2016

snapshot

I want to draw a circle around the morning, around the frosty pink that shades the space between the tree branches pressed against the sky. I'll draw the circle in pen and it will be a snapshot that time cannot touch. I'll swallow it whole and digest it. It will run through my veins and feed layers of new skin.

When I dissolve, this image will release back into the air and someone else can claim it. No one will know it once belonged to me but the folds of my mind will be imprinted on the sky right there, in the color of morning when it's awake but still has the sheets pulled up over its shoulder as it stretches the sleep from each finger, toe, elbow, knee, soaking for just a minute more in the delicious threads of slumber before they evaporate in the full light of day.

A child's feet pad down the hallway. I click the cap on my pen and the shutter closes, capturing the image.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

self assurance

There is something about seeing discarded toys laying around that makes me feel sad. It's a lump-in-throat kind of sad, something missing, something gone that once was here. I hear echos. I think of ghosts. I see an empty swing rocking in the wind...

   ...as if
        .... as if
               .... as if

No.

I don't want to write about that.

I don't want to write about empty playgrounds. I don't want to write about the passage of time or kids growing up and needing different things. I don't want to write about my changing role as a parent.

I don't want to write about parenting.

I don't want to write about how no matter how well I take care of myself, my mind regularly feels like a puddle spread out on the floor that everyone splashes through. My head is splayed open and every eddy of the air touches the raw tendrils of my mind.

I don't want to write about this morning. I don't want to write about when my daughter was going on an on about how long it takes her to change out of her gym clothes and how little time she has to get to class, and I had to stop myself from asking her to please be quiet, just for one minute. From saying that I just don't care.

I don't want to write about the ways in which I feel like a shitty parent.

I don't want to write about that.

Because I've been feeling very alive lately. Bright. Bubbling over. Much less of the dull metal, dull gray, shallow feeling that sometimes settles in.

I can hear my own mean voice telling myself I'm doing everything wrong. No, not my mean voice -- my insecure voice. The voice of fear. But I can nod my head and politely say, "Thank you for your opinion. I appreciate your perspective. Now hush."

And then I can explain to that voice that the following truths are real:

I love my kids.

I care very much about what happens to them, what's best for them, their successes, their hurts, their dreams.

I love them. I take good care of them.

But they don't set me on fire.

What sets me on fire has nothing at all to do with them.

What sets me on fire has everything to do with me.

With what I see. With the temperature of the air when it hits my lungs. With the way the earth presses back against my foot when I step. With the strength in my muscles, the sunlight burned into the backs of my eyes, and the words dripping out of my pen.

It is only when I am lit up with this fire that I can see the full picture, the front and the back:

I am whole and fractured. I am solid and liquid. I am here and not here. I care and sometimes I don't care.

I am fine. And I am fine.

This is the delicious truth.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

my mind at midnight

It's midnight. The dog needs to go out. I stumble through the house, fumble with his crate. The kitchen floor is ice under my sleep-warm feet. I open the door. Winter exhales right in my face and my goosebumps push back against the cold. The dog goes out.

The dog comes in.

I tuck him back into his crate and tumble back into my own covers. I close my eyes.

But sleep must have slipped out the open door and gotten stuck in the snow somewhere. My mind decides to stay sitting up in bed, wringing its hands in the dark.

Worry.

Say the word aloud: it sounds like spinning wheels. Questions that poke into the past and prod into the future. Places where a midnight mind never belongs.

It's nothing. It's everything. I toss. I turn. It takes me a long time to remember what to do.

Breathe.

Deep and downreaching. Slow and the single most important thing in the room.

I am surprised how different a deep breath feels. Shallow breaths are constricted, pressured, urgent, demanding. Deep breaths are full of space in all directions. In all dimensions -- even time feels more open.

My mind fights against my breath. It wants to keep spinning tightly, winding more and more questions, predictions, and admonishments around my chest until I am crushed.

But my breath is patient, stretching at the bindings until my thoughts float above the surface of my skin and sleep settles back in, a cushion between my body and mind.

Everything goes quiet.

I sleep.

In the morning, everything is fine. Of course it is. But I am reminded again how easily I forget about my breath. I'd like to remember it more often.

This is something I have to practice.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Seeing is Knowing

This is not news: I lack self confidence.

I always have. Despite support. Despite success. I don't know why. It's part of my fiber, I guess.

This has been getting better lately, though. I'm really working on it. It feels good. I feel like I'm on the rise.

Yesterday I had what felt like a break-through-the-glass realization. My skull pressed against some invisible, solid barrier and it broke through. I'm out of my own atmosphere all of the sudden and I'm catching my breath. There's more oxygen out here and my eyes are open wide.

It starts here:

I've always felt somehow less-than. Lower. Inadequate because my view is so narrow. I don't travel. I have never been good at staying abreast of current events. I don't consider myself well read. I don't form strong opinions. I don't interact with the world very much. My life is not cutting edge or adventurous. I'm in my house a lot. In my head a lot. I've always felt embarassed by my lack of worldliness. Unqualified. Uninteresting. Dull.

Which always leads me here:

There's no way I can write meaningful fiction. Where is my credibility? How could I even have a voice? What do I even know?

Write what you know -- this is what they say. But all I know is kids and cleaning, chauffeuring and online tutoring. Dogs and bus stops and farmer's markets; walks, parks, dance classes. All of this is great, but I don't really want to write a story about any of it.

But then: rise, press, crack --

-- and suddenly I find myself here:

Working on a fiction piece, feeling good, feeling strong, energized by the realization that I can write anything I want. Not because I'm worldly but because I see.

I see shadows in a full moon midnight, long black slats of darker darkness cutting across the yard. I see the new day peeling the lid off the night. I see the moon and I put it on my tongue. It cools my throat. I see absence and presence and exhalations. I know love. I know loss. I know fear. I know trust.

I am an elderly man. A queer woman. A bereaved parent. I am any of these; I am all of these. Because I can see.

And it's about time I acknowledge the value in that.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

the plant in my living room

There's a plant in my living room. It's been there for over two years.

It doesn't look very good again. It must be time to water it.

I try to water it regularly. Give it plant food sometimes. Trim off the dry, brown leaves, turn it so the sunlight can touch even the side tucked in the shadows. I've tried moving it to different corners of the living room. These relocations are usually done out of necessity -- We're putting the Christmas tree here, so this shelf will have to go over there. And -- hm -- the plant can go over there -- but I always think this will be good for it. Maybe a new spot is just what it needs.

I've seen it perk up nicely in response to water, but mostly it looks sad, on the edge of someplace else. But it hangs on.

I don't really have much of a knack for growing things. I'd like to. I always thought I would. I imagined a garden when I fantasized about owning a house. Vegetables for sure. Flowers too, maybe. But I haven't tried very hard to overcome the challenges of shade and soil. And because I've always felt pulled in so many different directions in the house -- kids, chores, work -- growing things has never been a priority.

Kim always kept a beautiful yard. Luscious flower boxes, carefully chosen landscaping elements, herbs in an artsy container over there, tomatoes in a patch over there. A water fountain against the garage, and a deep, rich-sounding wind chime hanging from the pergola there. You could hear it from inside the house if it was quiet. Though if you were inside the house you'd most likely be drawn into a story she was telling. Her energy could fill a room like the sun slanting through the windows on a winter day. Warm on the back of your neck. I miss her.

When Kim died, John's workplace sent us the plant that's still in our living room. It was full and green then; it took up so much space. It had a white ribbon sunk into its soil. The ribbon is long gone and the plant looks thin now. But it's still green. It still sends up new leaves.

It's hope and I'd like to keep it alive.

Monday, January 25, 2016

unmoored

I'll figure it out when I get there.

This is what I told myself when I imagined the delicious unscheduled time I'd spend on my solo trip to Arizona before I'd meet up with the friend I was planning to visit. Time I'd spend alone, not taking care of anyone else or considering another person's needs at all. Just my own.

I'll figure it out when I get there.

I said it like someone with access to a smart phone, with a GPS built into the dashboard of her rental car, with nothing but time and a heart full of adventure and serenity. Like someone who has traveled alone more recently than 12 years ago. I didn't picture myself like this, with 5% of my phone battery left (and falling), driving through a construction zone in the middle of a big, unfamiliar city, with no address to plug into the very helpful GPS display awaiting my input, still feeling the aftershocks of a much-less-smooth-than-expected experience of airline travel.

I had envisioned time in the airport to make last-minute plans, cup of coffee in my hand, waiting to board my flight. An airport is just a gigantic waiting room. A place of transition. Limbo. At least that's how I remembered it.

Instead it was a rushing, sweaty, heart-in-throat experience that involved arriving later than I should have, parking in a more expensive lot than I had intended, mentally hurrying security line forward only to find out I had waited through the wrong one (what?!), and boarding the plane -- just in time -- with a full bladder (and a serious aversion to airplane bathrooms).

Once the flight ended (and I finally used the bathroom -- dear lord), I retrieved my checked luggage without issue and got my rental car. But I was talked into an expensive upgrade to a 4x4 by the guy behind the counter because of all the snow that had fallen in the area the day before.

"Some highways are closed," he had said.

I felt skeptical about the necessity and ridiculous for not even asking around for a lower rate. But I had signed the paperwork and was pulling out of the lot, and all I could hear were all should-haves bouncing and clattering behind the car like tin cans tied to a honeymooning couple's rear bumper. Only I wasn't driving off into the sunset.

My stomach was in knots, my mind was jittery. I felt young. I felt old. I felt stupid. Talking to my husband helped (he's reassuring and optimistic by nature), but I still felt unmoored. (Spell check wants me to change this word to unarmored. This is an accurate suggestion).

What was I doing? Where was my sense of adventure? If I ever had an inner compass, it had gone completely haywire. Maybe I should have stayed home. I like being home. I really do. I like things safe and quiet. But my house isn't often quiet. I was hoping to find that here. I still could. I just needed to regroup. I pulled over, hurriedly googled restaurants near me, and plugged an address into the GPS.

The traffic thinned once I was out of the construction zone, and within a few blocks I saw the cute, trendy cafe my internet search had recommended. I drove past it three times, circling the block again and again even though I could see open parking spots. It felt like a big decision to stop here. Were they open? Would I get a parking ticket? Could I find a spot to plug in my phone? I was being stupid, I knew. I was almost laughing at myself, except I also felt like crying. I needed something to eat.

I finally parked the car and went inside. I blinked as if coming in from the bright sunshine or in from the bitter cold. But the difference was neither of those things.

In here, the music was chill and familiar. The lunch crowd hadn't arrived yet so the space was fairly empty. Casual. Relaxed. A huge exhale. I was coming in, out of my head.

"Do I just order here?" I asked the woman behind the sit-down bar. There seemed to be a main counter, too. I was probably wearing lost like an ugly sweater.

"Yah, you can. No problem." She gave me a menu and I chose the frittata -- quickly -- before I could start second guessing this decision, too. "Sounds great; I'll put that in," she said.

"Thanks," I said, resisting the very strong urge to tell her everything that was pressing on the lump in my throat.

I picked a table (another decision I could make!) and set my backpack on the ground. I draped my coat over the chair. There was an outlet in the wall under the table. I plugged in my phone. The food came and I ate. I drank some coffee.

I texted the friend I would meet later and texted home to say hello. I looked up directions to a hiking trail I'd wanted to try. I finished my coffee. I felt like I could breathe again.

When I left the cafe I said goodbye to the woman behind the bar. I wanted to thank her for changing the trajectory of my day, but it seemed like too much, and not really true. It wasn't her, though her good customer service skills certainly helped. It was something else -- or a bunch of little things, really: the ritual of a meal, the safety of a phone charged out of the red, the comfort of a destination and set of directions. And something in the quality of the air that pulled the anxiety right off my skin, an effect not unlike the wind created when air moves from high to low pressure.

Looking back and seeing it from the outside, it really didn't take much to ground me, ultimately, out of an unmoored, uncertain state. But to me, in that moment, it was a weather event. A paradigm shift. Everything.

And from there, I had an excellent vacation.

Friday, January 22, 2016

How do you feel?

How do I feel, right now?

First, my feet tingle, waking back up after their doze from when I was sitting cross legged, one foot tucked under my thigh – 

why do I sit like that? 

My legs fall asleep every time and it’s always a miniature agony for them to come back to life. But it feels so cozy to cross my legs, tuck myself in, self-contained, keeping everything out, an origami folding (intricate), a yoga pose (graceful). But pins and needles are never graceful. The pained look on my face, the willing it to go away, the inevitability, and finally the lessening and passing and ease again. I can always feel it when my legs are going numb. That would be a great time to unfold, but the numbness is a special feeling, too. The absence of feeling. The exit of feeling. Feeling draining out and what’s left is a vacuum, an empty space, a breath held out. And the inhale will have to come, and soon, but that gap has its own potential.
I’ve been thinking this week about how I look back on the past 11 years and I feel like I’ve been asleep, in a way. Claire was born four months after I graduated from college, and I wasn’t fully formed then. There was still more unfurling I needed to do. But she was born then and I switch-tracked into motherhood, a place I never really imagined myself inhabiting but never really imagined that I wouldn’t inhabit, either. I was happy to take this path, though. I didn’t have any other plans yet, just some vague dreams that seemed far off anyway. And this was so real and here and in my arms. A baby. Something I created. I see a lot of people cozy into motherhood so easily. Of course, up all night is easy for no one, but I was tangled up in a lot of self-doubt during Claire’s baby days, and to be honest, all of their baby days. Claire, Eliza, Ruth, Rose. Rose is three and a half now, and for the first time in 11 years I don’t have a toddler and an infant or a pregnancy. And so a little bit I feel like I’m unfolding. Or I want to unfold.

My limbs have been bent inward for years. I’ve been sheltering something, keeping everything else out, protecting myself from everything I fear. I think right now I’m at that point just before inhale. I’m empty. I want to take a huge, slow, expansive breath but I’m afraid it’s going to hurt. Does it always hurt to wake up? It’s terrifying to admit how little I really know, how fragile I really am, how shaky my confidence really is. I’m so afraid that I’ll unfold my limbs, and when the feeling comes back I still won’t have anything to say. And I’ve always wanted to have something to say.

Friday, January 15, 2016

to a good friend

I am walking uphill.

This is not a metaphor.

I have micro-spikes on my running shoes, walking sticks in my hands. These have become my good friends.

Right behind me is a true good friend, the kind of friend you may only meet in scraps of time scattered across the years and the whole spread of a country, but with whom a connection always hums. Hiking with her today feels like it could be every day. Like we do this all the time.

My body laughs at this thought, though -- do this all the time. I have been exercising more lately, but the Grand Canyon has a way of humbling a person.

My lungs are heavy. My legs are moving but they feel like a funny mix of jello and concrete. My feet have been barking for miles. I stop - again -- to let my breathing slow and my heart rate climb down out of my eyes. I can see the blood pulsing when I look at the snow. We've been ascending for awhile now, but the rim still seems impossible over our heads. I trace the trail ahead with my gaze, trying to assess the grade. A couple hikers are quite a bit ahead of us. I watch them turn the corner of a switchback and it doesn't look like they're climbing as steeply as we are. They look small. Far away.

"We've got this," my friend says as we push ahead again. I agree with a grunt. Of course we've got this, but I like that she said it aloud. I like that I can hear her feet crunching over the snow behind me. (I like that she let me go first. I was starting to lag, and discouragement was weighing me down. She could feel this.) I like that we've already talked and talked and talked and now we're silent and that feels good, too. I like that I can complain if I want to, stop if I need to catch my breath, fart if I feel so moved. I like that I'm here, now, with her.

We'll get dinner after we're done with this hike, and I'll listen to her read a bedtime story to her daughter later on. She and her husband will both sing Baby Beluga. When her daughter cries out of a nightmare just before sunrise, my friend's voice will float sleepy patience cozy love waves of soft comfort fading into silence and peaceful darkness again.

So much has changed, I'll think as I pull the quilt over my shoulder in the guest bedroom. But it's also true that everything is exactly the same.


Sunday, January 3, 2016

before i write

Actually, if you want to know, my alarm goes off at an hour much earlier than is needed to allow for just the morning pages and the morning walk, at an hour I used to consider a night waking when my kids were babies. My alarm goes off and I shuffle out of bed and into the bathroom, shove my contacts into my bleary eyes and grab the pile of clothing I set out the night before. I use my phone’s home screen like a flashlight to find my way down the hallway, locate my water bottle on the kitchen counter, and head down into the basement, where I flip on the lights full strength. The brightness makes me squint for several blinks. I’m not fully awake.

This is a good thing because I’m going through the motions of routine, not quite capable of analyzing earliness of the hour or the effort the scheduled workout will require. My body is tricking my mind into this. I change out of my cozy, warm pajamas into exercise clothes, pull my dumbbells out of the corner, and load up the DVD. Then I’m doing squats and lunges, or maybe today its hammer curls and pushups. It could be sets of mountain climbers and burpees, or plank variations and crunches. It depends on the day, but you get the idea: I’m sweating.

And then it’s over and I cool down and change into my walking clothes and head back upstairs for my coffee and notebook to write before I head outside to walk the dog.

Why do I do this? I’d say because I’m making time for myself, but that’s not totally it – the writing and the walking fill this category pretty well, so this alone can't be motivation enough to pull me out of bed. And the Lord knows I don’t need to lose weight. I’ve always been that skinny girl, skinny Minnie, the you-should-eat-more, I-wish-I-could-be-that-thin girl. But with all my angles and edges, parts that jut when rounded and curved is more standard, I’ve always been self-conscious about my body.

It’s true that I’m all grown up now, but I will never forget how I felt in 9th grade when a kid I didn’t even know by name stopped in the hallway in front of my locker and asked if I was anorexic. His eyes were lined with disdain, not concern. Or the time I was changing out of my racing flats at a track meet and a girl from another team commented, “Your legs are SO skinny?!?” She did not speak with admiration. My responses were feeble in these situations. Inaudible.  I was never (and still am not) good at dealing with conflict of any kind, but it offended me deeply when someone insinuated that I was unwell or could somehow control my hyperactive metabolism.  I was born skinny. That's it.

I’m still skinny even after having four kids.

I don’t attract mean comments anymore – thank God the world is not a high school – but sometimes people still think it’s okay to comment about my thin stature. This doesn’t bother me like it used to, but for the record I’d like to state that it might be better to consider whether a comment about someone’s body is truly a compliment before it’s spoken. Being thin does not mean I am in love with my body, nor does it indicate that I possess a measurable amount of self-confidence.

But there’s something about doing these workouts that is shaking something awake in me. Does it sound cheesy if I say that getting stronger again is strengthening something in my head, too? That doing something I thought I couldn’t (it would be too boring, I know I don’t have the time, I’ll never stick with it, I’ll get too tired, I’ll be too sore, it’ll be annoying, I’m not a fitness person, etc, etc) is breaking up some really old inner shadows?

I’m starting to be able to see my abs again and my biceps have some substance. I can do ten consecutive pushups (this is progress!) and I can get lower in sumo squats. I’m thinking about buying some new running shoes so I can give that a go again. I might sign up for a race.

I’m still the same skinny girl but I feel bolder, more awake under my skin, full of potential energy. This is not at all dissimilar to how writing makes me feel, actually, and this is why I get up so early in order to do both. It’s like this:

Under every skin is so much
Unseemly
Unshown territory.
Alive on its own no matter
If you lie about it or look for it.
Lamp on skin,
Transluscious
Beads of “Yes, That” wander the web
Of possibility.
My mask is my skin.
How can I be without it?
Out of it?

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

before i walk

Before I walk, I write my morning pages.

This is typically three pages of long hand, scrawled in the half light allowed by the single bulb over the kitchen sink. I usually sit cross-legged on the couch in the very outskirts of this light, my feet tucked under my thighs, pillow on my lap for a makeshift table, notebook on pillow, pen moving across paper. I don't write anything of consequence. It's true that I spend pages complaining. It's an airing of grievances. Anything at all. From the quality of my sleep, to the mysterious ache in my knees, to the list of things I need to accomplish today, with detours into self doubt and existentialism. I throw up my thoughts, letting them splatter and drip down the pages as I turn them.

Sometimes, the daily dump is all I have time for, especially if I've gotten a late start. Other times, I run out of things to say as I bore my own socks off with the tedium of the contents of my mind, and I run up against a huge wall of resistance, a big fat mental ugh. 

I don't want to put forth
   the effort it would take
     to drag my pen across the lines
       for the number of words I'd need use
         to tell myself all the stuff
           I already know.

I could stop here.

But if keep pressing against this wall, my my fist eventually cracks the glass (because it wasn't a wall but a window all along), and my pen suddenly has the space and energy to move faster. This is a shift into a different mode of writing. A step back from the window I've been pressing my eye against, and suddenly instead of just the fog from my own breath and a few twinkling lights on the other side, there's crisp, cold air and the whole world right in front of me. Lately, I've been using this broken-glass time to piece out bits of a story I'm working on. I'll walk my character down the stairs and into the basement. I'll describe the squeak of the stairs, the way his own weight threatens the stability of his knees, the feel of finality of the concrete under his feet when he first steps onto the basement floor.

But then it'll be time to close my notebook, and the dog will leap up as soon as he hears my pen click, and then it'll be the walk and then the breakfasts and getting ready and making lunches and the bus stop, and I swear my children try to use their voices like battering rams against my ear drums, and then they're gone for the day and I have my work to complete and so many chores and the 3-year-old at my elbow through it all.

There's something special about writing the morning pages, though, especially on days when I can cut through all that garbage floating at the surface. I like writing from this underwater place. It helps me remember that I am more than my to-do list. I am more than my body. I am more than my mind. Even if it's only for the space of ten notebook lines, five minutes of time, I am buoyed by the chance to connect to myself. My Self.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

walking

In the early mornings, I walk my dog. Early, before the kids are up. Early, before I’ve had any coffee. Early, when the sleep still clings to the corners of my eyes, I put on yesterday’s clothing, and I go out. Now, in this season, it is always dark at this hour. Dark in varying degrees depending on the moon’s phase and the cloud cover, but always dark. The sharpest mornings are the clear ones, the cold ones. I walk down the driveway with my eyes on the sky, Orion the Hunter tilted sideways above me, watching. My breath hangs in the air, frozen, and I move forward, lengths behind my eager dog, who has been waiting with painful patience for me to don all my layers. He wears the same thing today that he wore in the middle of July. I imagine he thinks I’m tedious, but he puts up with me, nose in the door jamb. He is unwilling to miss its opening.

Most days I turn the corner and walk a few houses down, under a street light, through the heavy shadows still sleeping stretched out across the street, and stop at the bottom of my neighbor’s driveway to wait. But on the days my neighbor and her dog don’t join me, I cross the street early and continue on in silence. I wait at the street lights. The light turns, green floods the pavement, and I cross. Sawyer lifts his leg at the base of the street light, the bush we pass next, the foot of a tree: Sawyer was here, Sawyer was here, Sawyer was here. Invisible dog graffiti.

Paws on pavement, boots on gravel, we turn off the sidewalk and into the Conservancy. On the darkest mornings, if I’m alone, I keep one eye on Sawyer as we start down the wide path. If he’s all excitement and unbounded energy, I relax into the rhythm of my steps. But on occasion, I’ve seen him alert in a different way, attention on something I can’t perceive. I tell myself he hears an animal -- a doe, a vole, another dog -- but the hair on the back of my neck stands up. My antenna is swiveling, trying to pick up whatever signal he senses. Stop being a baby, I tell myself as I assess the cell phone in my pocket, my feeble self-defence skills, the likelihood of Sawyer’s ability to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. On these mornings, when I’m alone, when the clouds cover Orion and the moon, when I’m alert and on edge, I turn around early, only going as far as the water tower. I won’t go down the big hill beyond that point. The darkness looks deeper from here, an ocean I’m afraid to swim, even though I’ve been through it hundreds of times before. We retreat back to the sidewalk, the street lights; cross at the cross walk again and back up our driveway, where a light is on in the bathroom. I go into the house and start making someone’s breakfast. I drink my coffee and make the lunches. Through the window I see the sky lightening, the suggestion of the sun. The street looks different from here, in this light.